Speech Critics Assess Obama's Oratory

NEW YORK (AP) — Authors, editors and speechwriters interviewed by The Associated Press agree President Obama is indeed a gifted and effective speechmaker, able to set a new tone with the Middle East in his Cairo speech or to turn public opinion, at least temporarily, in favor of changing the health care system after his address to Congress. As a supporter of President Obama for president, Ted Sorensen, a speechwriter to former President John F. Kennedy, welcomed the young Democrat as a winning, Kennedy-esque orator who did not bore the public with "five-point programs" and lectures more fit for the campus than the campaign.

As President Obama prepares to deliver his first State of the Union address, Sorensen wonders whether the president has not become more like the politicians he supposedly displaced.

"He is still a very eloquent, articulate speaker," Sorensen says. "He is clearly well-informed on all matters of public policy, sometimes, a little too well-informed. And as a result, some of the speeches are too complicated for typical citizens and very clear to university faculties and big newspaper editorial boards."

But even admirers have a hard time remembering what he actually says.

Ted Widmer, who edited an anthology of political speeches for the Library of America, praised President Obama for his "masterful" style, but could not cite a specific line the president said. Similar observations were made by Jeff Shesol, David Frum and Harry C. McPherson, who wrote speeches for presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson, respectively.

"The speech he made in Cairo — I remember the intelligence, the breadth and the reasonableness," McPherson says. "But I can't tell you — and this is one of the shortcomings of the kind of speech he makes — I can't quote anything, or cite anything, off the top of my head."

"His speeches can go for pages without applause lines, making comprehensive arguments about particular issues," said White House spokesman Bill Burton. "And though people may not remember particular lines or phrases from every speech, when he is done speaking, people always get a sense of who the president is and exactly where he is coming from."

Looking to the Past

A distinctive phrase can define, or make history, like Franklin Roosevelt's calling Dec. 7, 1941, "a date that will live in infamy" because of the bombing of Pearl Harbor; or President Gerald Ford's declaration, upon taking office after Richard Nixon had resigned, that "our long national nightmare is over."

Kennedy's inaugural call to "ask what you can do for your country" helped inspire an era of public service, while President Ronald Reagan's demand that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down that wall," the Berlin Wall, was a climactic moment of the Cold War.

"I think there are memorable lines in certain speeches (by President Obama)," says presidential speechwriter Adam Frankel, who started writing for President Obama when he was a candidate. "But what makes him unique as a speaker is not necessarily a single line but the overall story he tells and the seriousness with which he tells it and the trust he puts in people to understand a complicated argument."

Frum and others warn a speechwriter can be so eager to come up with a memorable quote that the overall text suffers. President Obama's preference for sustained explanation over snappy summaries is a good thing, Widmer says, because it means he is treating the public as adults.

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